Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 10, 2019
Jennifer Jolly Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 352 pp.; 11 color ills.; 92 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781477314203)

In the collective memory of Mexicans, President Lázaro Cárdenas, who governed the country between 1934 and 1940, is considered an exemplar of nationalism: he is mythically associated with the steadfast defense of national assets such as oil, and with the struggles of peasants and indigenous people. As Verónica Vázquez Mantecón points out in a 2009 article, this mythology reveals Mexicans’ persistent desire for social justice. Having been an active participant in the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 and later governor of the state of Michoacán before becoming president, General Cárdenas has social and political capital that has remained stable and has even been inherited by members of his family.

Multiple works have been written on Cárdenas’s biography and his government period (known as cardenismo), which are analyzed from various outlooks. The one offered by Jennifer Jolly in Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico: Art, Tourism, and Nation Building under Lázaro Cárdenas has the merit of offering a well-rounded perspective that uniquely considers urban and landscape planning, public art, and tourism development as policies modeled not in Mexico City, the capital of the country, but in Pátzcuaro, a city in the state of Michoacán (in southwest Mexico) that was the focus of a peculiar project of national construction. Jolly´s acute book is successful in giving us a comprehensive view of the mechanisms by which the image of Pátzcuaro was created through a process of power engineering. This creation remains effective to this day for the inhabitants of the region.

According to Jolly, President Cárdenas’s cultural agenda made Pátzcuaro a laboratory or microcosm in which many policies were developed. Two of the most important were national reconciliation in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and the development of tourism. The policies involved identifying the region of Michoacán, with Pátzcuaro at its center, as the focal point in a panorama of harmonic continuity of traditions stretching from pre-Hispanic times to the postrevolutionary “renaissance,” all of which existed in supposed balance with modernity. Throughout five chapters the author shows us the successive creations carried out as part of the presidential project, for which a “technology of governance” was used. The author uses this category to refer to the propaganda and administrative apparatus that allowed for the articulation of efforts to re-create Pátzcuaro.

In the first chapter, Jolly explains how the region of Lake Pátzcuaro became the setting for a consolidation of Mexican identity. The area first captured the attention of nineteenth-century traveling artists. Then, with the development of photography, its scenery became the focus for tourists looking to capture the national landscape. The indigenous inhabitants of the lake area were cast as an essential part of the national territory in ways that did not question their place in society or their social class. International tourists were also invited to explore Pátzcuaro as the epitome of picturesque Mexico.

Picturesque landscape paintings were created for enjoyment and the feeling of distance between the subject and the observer, while social realist works generated empathy and identification with the subjects portrayed. Yet both ideological modes of the region’s art relied on landscape scenes and drew from photographs, and both offered observers a countrified past set in the present, against which they would imagine their own world.

The social realist project was tied to the nationwide revolutionary educational project, under which artists encouraged the construction of historical consciousness through the expansion of art in rural schools. Artists and photographers employed social realism as a theoretical and aesthetic frame, focusing on indigenous subjects and their cultural expressions. Spanish modernist artist Gabriel García Maroto, American photographer Paul Strand, and others were part of this public politics in the Pátzcuaro region.

Mural paintings (further discussed in chapter 3) created for several emblematic buildings of the city functioned as badges of the cardenista regional unifying project. In some of the earliest, maps and vistas played a key role in formulating a vision of Lake Pátzcuaro, a region that before 1930 had not been considered a unit by its inhabitants. Seen together, muralism and tourism promoted collective ways of looking, which were ideal for the project of national integration.

In chapter 2 the author discusses the redesign of the city of Pátzcuaro, arguing that pictorial, architectural, and urban aesthetics became key tools for social regulation. Since the goal was to create a “typical” town, Jolly examines the term típico as a category for establishing typologies of building styles, which in turn defined a sense of geographical, period, and cultural belonging; in short, social regulation was about “governing spaces and practices,” or the “cleaning up” of the wide range of both architectural types and social lifestyles to fit with the “new” colonial town. The building of a modern market (in a colonial style) to replace the outdoor tianguis in the main plaza is one example of this.

President Cárdenas used lo típico to promote transformation, employing a strategy evoking history and aesthetics that was soon embraced by citizens. This strategy, which involved a process of selection, preservation, construction, and representation of Pátzcuaro´s monuments, was instrumental for nation building and modernization. The urban narrative selected to re-create lo típico drew only from sixteenth-century indigenous and Spanish sources, rendering invisible the city’s diverse social composition and the way it had developed in later centuries. By stressing the ways in which the indigenous Purépecha and Spaniards culturally came together in the sixteenth century, Pátzcuaro was presented as the epitome of the mestizo city.

In chapter 3, Jolly explains the role of the pictorial mural program carried out in Pátzcuaro as part of a very coherent state policy directed at both the region and the nation. Ricardo Bárcenas painted two murals in 1937 in an old Augustinian convent that at the request of the president was reconstructed as the Emperor Caltzontzin Theater, honoring the last Purépecha ruler. By being displayed on opposite walls of the theater, facing each other, the murals present stark dichotomies between modernization and the preservation of the traditional, the regional and the national, and the past and the future. Jolly guides us through the modernizing/preserving program of the cardenista government as seen in the Bárcenas murals: one, The Sexenal Plan, announces a country projected into the future based on the substantive reforms carried out by Cárdenas regarding industry in the countryside; the other, Michoacán Industries, reflects a regional agenda projected into the past based on handicrafts, or artesanías.

Bárcenas worked under the premise that the Mexican state was capable of reconciling the contradictions and oppositions that threatened to divide the country. He presented a utopian vision of the nation in which tradition and modernity, the regional and the national, were unified. Craft production in Michoacán was marshaled in a narrative that Jolly synthesizes with great success. The postrevolutionary state elevated artesanías to the level of art, and from there their presence in academia, public policies, and tourism allowed them a continuous place in both domestic settings and museum exhibit cases.

As part of these developments the category of arte popular emerged, a classification that continues in force to the present day both in academic and public policy circles. It was an intermediate conceptual formula used to refer “appropriately” to artifacts made by indigenous Mexicans who were invested in as custodians of tradition. Such art was housed in the Museo de Artes e Industrias Populares (Popular Arts and Industries Museum), opened in 1938 to display and promote the “domestic manufactures” from the region (see Robert West´s Cultural Geography of the Modern Tarascan Area, originally published in 1947). The museum was located in the former Colegio de San Nicolás, founded by the missionary bishop Vasco de Quiroga in 1540.

The framing of the Pátzcuaro region’s past as national history is examined throughout chapter 4. Artists and intellectuals appropriated regional myths, narratives, and traditions as strategies to cast Pátzcuaro’s history in national terms under the benevolent gaze of Cárdenas, who approved the idea of transforming memory into official history in order to support his political agenda. Public monuments such as statues, effigies, and memorials were useful in this narrative, as were civic rituals such as commemorative parades, which gradually changed their characters according to the secularization of history and the new indigenista conscience arising from the idealization of the Purépecha people of the past. Jolly’s analysis clearly identifies the image rhetoric of the cardenista program, formulated in part by the nascent national academic structure. The experience presented to the national and foreign tourist visiting Pátzcuaro was intended to offer a summary of the history of the country as synthesized in the region. Furthermore, each historical figure (the Purépecha ruler Tangaxoan, Vasco de Quiroga, and independence leader José María Morelos) was equated with the president born in Michoacán.

In the final chapter, the author shows us that while the image of Pátzcuaro was being created, Cárdenas was also being shaped as a character in the national imaginary. He was cast alternately as a patriarch, a modern hero who embodied the will of the Mexican people, and an ordinary man. At the same time he was gradually institutionalizing a project that originally started as something personal in Pátzcuaro, where his estate was located. Jolly also points out that the painters, sculptors, and architects, as well as the historians who materialized the creation of Pátzcuaro, counted on the contributions of members of the local and regional elite who embraced the president’s proposal since it suited their interests.

Creating Pátzcuaro, Creating Mexico demonstrates how history, art, and tourism can be combined and serve as a technology of governance. Thanks to Jennifer Jolly for her valuable contribution.

Amalia Ramírez Garayzar
Professor-Researcher, Program of Art and Cultural Heritage, Indigenous Intercultural University of Michoacán, Mexico